Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Mercedes-Benz is tapping into the popularity of ultra-luxurious all-terrain vehicles, with a new Maybach SUV that can ferry passengers over desert dunes with an open top and thermal cupholders.

The Mercedes-Maybach G-Class 650, shown at the Geneva auto show, will be the world’s most expensive sport utility vehicle with a price of about $500,000. It’s Daimler AG’s latest extension of the top-of-the-line Maybach marque that it resurrected amid surging demand for higher-end models. Limited to a run of 99, the SUV will have a V12 engine and a landaulet style, with a front row that’s covered and a retractable fabric roof in the back.

“This car meets the highest demands for luxury and yet still has all the elements that make the G-Class a real off-roader,” said Gunner Guethenke, who heads Mercedes’s SUV business. Customers who buy the marque’s G-Class -- the segment is named for Gelaendewagen, the German term for all-terrain vehicles -- are looking for something “unique,” he said.

Under pressure to foot the soaring bill of developing electric cars, autonomous-driving features and ride-sharing platforms, Daimler is more aggressively targeting ultra-wealthy customers with high-margin models on the one hand, while also adding more affordable cars that sell in large volumes. That strategy helped Mercedes unseat rival BMW AG as the world’s best-selling luxury marque last year and allowed Daimler to boost its research and development budget by almost a quarter.

After struggling for years to sustain a niche for Maybach, Mercedes revived the 1930’s-era sub-brand in 2014 and has since expanded it with more opulent and spacious adaptations of popular models, such as convertible and three-row stretch limousine versions of the Mercedes S-Class sedan.

The Maybach G650, which will test customers’ appetite for a full-production SUV from that marque, will have an electric -- and dimmable -- glass partition to separate passengers from the driver, retractable footrests and folding tables stashed in the middle console. To master truly rugged terrains, the vehicle is positioned almost half a meter (1.6 feet) above the ground. It’ll be available for sale after September.

Exotic Versions

Daimler isn’t alone in chasing after the lucrative cash cow of luxury SUVS. Volkswagen AG’s Bentley marque introduced the $229,100 Bentayga last year, currently the industry’s priciest off-roader in regular production. BMW’s Rolls-Royce is set to release its first 4x4 conveyance with an anticipated price tag of more than $400,000 next year.

The boxy G-Class has been around since 1979. With a rugged exterior that’s reminiscent of Land Rover’s now discontinued Defender, the iconic car is Stuttgart-based Daimler’s most expensive passenger vehicle, priced from $122,400. Production last year surpassed 20,000 units for the first time.

Mercedes has a history of launching exotic versions of the G-Class. There’s a sporty version sold by the performance-focused AMG sub-brand, which makes up half of all sales. The G63 AMG 6x6, a three-axle show car unveiled in 2013, had a pick-up load area behind a cabin that housed four electrically adjustable, heated and ventilated individual seats. Almost 200 of the 379,000-euro car were built.

The carmaker “has already pushed the boundaries pretty far with the standard G-Class,” said Ian Fletcher, a London-based analyst with forecaster IHS Automotive. “Every time it does, customers just seem to lap it up.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Elisabeth Behrmann in Geneva at ebehrmann1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Reiter at creiter2@bloomberg.net, Dalia Fahmy

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